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Racial Wealth Divide

The Language of the Unheard

Research & Commentary
May 01, 2015

by Betsy Wood

The protesters in Baltimore need to be heard. Are we listening?

After Trayvon, Michael, Eric, John, Tamir, Walter, and countless others, shouldn’t all Americans finally learn something from the death of Freddie Gray? Isn’t it time, as the President said this week, for our nation to do some serious “soul searching?”

Watching the predictable, status quo coverage of the riots, it sadly doesn’t seem there’s any soul searching going on. Even sadder is that the reality of our country not learning or changing anything after these repeated tragic deaths is becoming just as predictable.

A quote trending on Twitter the past few days is Martin Luther King Jr’s insightful definition in 1968 of what a riot is. As he so eloquently put it, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Taking MLK’s words to heart, shouldn’t we step back for a moment and try to hear the unheard?

Just a few of the voices of Baltimore collected from around the web:

“They are treating us like animals.” –Baltimore resident/protester

“To us, the Baltimore police department is a group of terrorists, funded by our tax dollars, who beat on people in our community daily, almost never having to explain or pay for their actions.” –Baltimore resident

“When we were out here protesting all last week for six days straight peacefully, there were no news cameras, there were no helicopters, there was no riot gear, and nobody heard us. So now that we’ve burned down buildings and set businesses on fire and looted buildings, now all of the sudden everybody wants to hear us.” –protester

“I’m tired of the police killing us and getting away with it. Enough is enough. You wonder why we dislike the police or why were so aggressive towards the police. This is why.” –young black Baltimore resident who videotaped Freddie Gray’s arrest

“They are killing us, they’re murdering us. There is no ‘this could be you,’ this IS you.” –resident/protester

“This is like a nightmare. I’ve never experienced anything like this. This is out of control.” –resident/protester

“I am black. I am intelligent and I am hated in this country.” –protester

“What gets results? If I ask you something nicely 20,000 times and you don’t do it and I finally piss in your cereal and then you change, whatever I did wasn’t wrong – it may have been disgusting, rude, or hurtful, painful, whatever, but it wasn’t wrong if it brings about change.” –resident of Gilmor Home housing project where Freddie Gray lived

“Freddie, Mike, Trayvon, Eric, etc. could have easily been my brother, cousin, friend, classmate. I won’t stop protesting because I don’t want my loved ones to be next.” –sign held by protester

“Nothing to lose but our chains.” –sign held by a protester

“We will not stop until killer kkkops are in cell blocks.” –the mother of Tyrone West

“All night and all day, we’re gonna fight for Freddie Gray” –sign held by protesters

“We are not thugs and neither are our children.” –sign held by a protester

“We just want justice. It’s not about the cops, it’s not about the media. We just want justice for Freddie and all the other people that might have lost their lives dealing with police brutality.” –resident/protester

And stepping back again to 1968. Dr. King had this to say about the unheard voices of the riot:

“And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last 12 or 15 years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

For America to do the serious soul-searching required, surely the first step is to hear – truly hear – the desperate cries and voices of the unheard.

Dr. Marjorie Wood is the managing editor of and a senior staff member of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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